Tag Archives: Membership

The Call

When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.”
Exodus 3:4 (NRSVCE)

Along my spiritual journey I have wandered in, through, and out of several different denominational and non-denominational tribes who carry the label of “Christian.” The differences between them were essentially three-fold: theology, style/practice of worship, and the behavioral expectations of members.

Along the way, I observed something that was common to all of them. Within each of those tribes were individuals who were members of the church, and those who were followers of Christ. There was a difference.

In today’s chapter, Moses is out tending his father-in-law’s flock (Note: Yet another theme of the Great Story. Moses was a shepherd, David was a shepherd, Jesus called Himself the “Good Shepherd,” Jesus told Peter to “feed my sheep.”). Moses sees a burning bush that keeps burning but doesn’t burn up. He investigates only to hear his name called. God speaks to Moses and calls him to “shepherd” his people out of Egypt.

In spiritual terms, this would be referred to as a “call” or “the call.” A person hears, senses, receives and then answers God’s calling out to them. It is a consistent theme in the Great Story from Adam through Saul of Tarsus. God calls, then the person answers and follows.

I find that this easily creates discomfort in many because there is a sense of there being spiritual “haves” (those who are “called”) and spiritual “have nots” (those who would say they haven’t). However, my own observation, and my understanding of the Great Story, is that Jesus made it clear that His “call” was universal. Jesus repeatedly told his audience that it was for anyone with “ears to hear.”

Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.

Revelation 3:20

“The call,” I have observed, is there for any and for all. This is why Jesus sends His followers “to the ends of the earth” to proclaim the good news. He is always knocking, though there is also His acknowledgement that there a some who will not hear or will not answer. To open the door, invite, receive, sit down together, have an intimate meal, talk, relate, and share… that’s a relationship between Jesus and the one who has heard the knock and opened the door.

That’s the difference. I have observed those who wear the label “Christian” but it appears to me that the label is based on their family’s (often generational) membership in a particular institution, their adherence to particular doctrinal statement or creed, and their religious observation of certain expectations regarding attendance, giving, and behavioral observations. It appears to be completely contractual without being in any way relational.

Those who have heard and answer the knock, or the call, have a different experience. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a twentieth-century theologian who followed “the call” to follow Jesus to the hangman’s noose in a Nazi concentration camp, wrote in one his most famous works: “When Christ calls a man, He bids Him ‘Come and die.'” To answer the call, he observes, is always a form of surrender. For Moses, answering the call will mean surrendering his pride, his liberty, and his quiet Bedouin shepherd’s life to shepherd twelve unruly tribes out of Egypt and into forty years of wilderness wandering.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself remembering the moment I heard the knock, and heard the call. It has been almost forty years now since I opened the door and invited Jesus in for our first meal together. The journey began. It has never been about church membership, adherence to a doctrinal statement, or dutiful religious obligations. It’s been about surrendering, following, seeking, forgiving, giving, loving, and sharing; Always with the effort and desire to be increasingly kind, gentle, patient, faithful, and self-controlled like Jesus example. Sometimes, embellished with the use of words.

As Moses found out, the eloquent words part is not that important. But, that’s tomorrow’s chapter.

Thanks for reading, my friend. May your journey lead you to pleasant places today.

Featured image by Claude Mellan (1663). From the Met Collection. Public Domain.

Want to Read More?

Simply click on the image above or click here to be taken to a page with a simple photo index to all posts from this series on Exodus.

About This Post

These chapter-a-day posts began in 2006. It’s a very simple concept. I endeavor each weekday to read one chapter from the Bible. I then blog about my thoughts, insights, and feelings about the content of that chapter. Everyone is welcome to share this post, like this post, or add your own thoughts in a comment. Thank you to those who have become faithful, regular or occasional readers along the journey along with your encouragement.

In 2019 I began creating posts for each book, with an indexed list of all the chapters for that book. You can find the indexed list by clicking on this link.

Prior to that, I kept a cataloged index of all posts on one page. You can access that page by clicking on this link.

You can also access my audio and video messages, as well.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

Membership and Motivation

“We will not neglect the house of our God.”
Nehemiah 10:39 (NIV)

I had been serving as the pastor of a small church for about a year when I got a call asking for my presence at an emergency meeting of the church Elders. That’s never a comforting sign.

I arrived at the meeting to find that there was one major issue on the agenda: Me. Specifically, one of the Elders expressed grave concern that was not an official member of the church.

Big trouble.

“Um, you all called me to be your pastor. Doesn’t that, kinda by default, make me a member?”

Nope.

“So, what do I have to do to become a member?”

Write a letter requesting I be granted membership status, then present it to the congregation for a vote.

“Um…Okay.”

I happy to report that the vote was overwhelming in favor of me, the church’s Pastor, becoming a member.

Whew!” [cue: Wiping sweat from brow.]

What’s both funny and ironic is that the “membership” issue has arisen in almost every church I’ve attended and served. I admit that I am a bit of a maverick after having experiences like the one I’ve just related. It is a piece of the institution of church that is obviously very important to certain individuals. I take issue with it, however. Every church institution I’ve ever attended has had a large number of people who jumped through the institutional hoops to become official “members,” but they never come or participate in any way. No one ever complains or has a problem with this. Meanwhile, if I actively participate with my consistent attendance, service, and offerings but don’t jump through the institutional hoops to get a piece of paper telling me that I’m “in,” then certain people get their undies in a bunch.

Thank you for letting me vent.

In today’s chapter, Nehemiah records what amounts to a legal document that records the commitment of the exiles to follow the Law of Moses and to provide prescribed offerings that would be necessary for the carrying out of the sacrificial system of the Temple. This was no small thing. The sacrificial system established through Moses was an intricate, even burdensome, system of sacrifices that required a large population’s offerings to keep it moving as laid out. Their legal contract was signed and sealed. It is obvious that Nehemiah felt it important to make the people’s obedience to the sacrificial system legally binding.

Here’s what I find fascinating as I mull things over in the quiet. The sacrificial system had been in place for roughly a thousand years. Time and time again it fell apart and became given over to various forms of religious and political corruption. That was part of Nehemiah’s “recounting” in yesterday’s chapter. So, Governor Nehemiah decides to try a legally binding agreement to try and keep people in line.

It didn’t work.

Some 400 years later when Jesus arrives on the scene the Temple system had become a corrupt, powerful money-making racket run by Godfather-esque high priests bent on lining their pockets and controlling the system. That’s why Jesus went postal on the Temple’s currency exchange marketplace not just once, but twice. It’s why he brutally denounced and called out the priests and teachers of the law for their corruption (read Matthew 23).

It’s also why Jesus time and time again taught the masses by starting with “You have heard it said…” then “But, I say….” The crux of Jesus’ message was that God’s concern was not about rule keeping and legally binding adherence to prescribed religious practices. God’s concern was for a change of heart that motivates real, tangible change in the way we love, live, give, and relate to others.

As a follower of Jesus, that’s where I want to follow. I want to invest my time, energy, and resources through my local gathering of Jesus followers because the love of Christ compels me, not because I have a piece of paper telling me I’m a “member” of an institution subject to the responsibilities thereof.

For the record, I am an official member of my local church out of loving deference to my brothers and sisters who find such things important. But, that’s not why I serve, give, and support. My motivation for doing my part is a matter of the heart.

A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

Rediscovering the Organism

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
1 Corinthians 12:27 (NIV)

I remember getting the call. There was an emergency meeting of the church elders. I was a young man and had been serving as pastor of a rural church for over a year. As I made my way to the church office for the hastily called meeting I wondered what on earth the problem was.

As it turned out, the problem was me. Apparently, I had not officially gone through the prescribed bureaucratic hoops required to become a member of the church when I was hired. One of the elders had their undies in a bunch because I’d never become a member. I sort of figured that if the congregation hired me, I was kind of automatically grandfathered in. Oh, no. How could I be serving as Pastor of the organization if I wasn’t a member of said organization? We have an existential crisis on our hands, people!!

I did my best not to laugh. At the next congregational meeting I submitted my name for membership, the congregation approved, and that little bit of silliness was put to rest.

The sad thing is that I’ve encountered similar kinds of silliness in the institutional church wherever my journey has taken me. Looking back over my journey, I’m struck at how different the institutional paradigm of “church” that I grew up with compares to the word picture of “the body of Christ” that Paul gives to the believers in Corinth in today’s chapter.

The word picture of the “Body” is a living organism made up of all believers. The church I grew up in was an organization made up of just those who chose to go through membership class, go through interviews with the elders, and accepted the “right hand of fellowship” along with a nice certificate (perfect for framing) during a Sunday morning meeting. In Paul’s word picture, every believer has a spiritual gift and has a significant part to play in contributing to the work of the Body of Christ as a whole. The church I grew up in had a few appointed “ministers” approved by the organization to do ministry. The vast majority of us were little more than spectators and financial support. Paul’s word picture of the Body is inclusive and includes all believers regardless of age, gender, social status, or ethnic background. The church I grew up in was exclusive to those who had a certificate of membership, which is why the elder in my earlier story was horrified by the notion that I was serving as their pastor but hadn’t jumped through the bureaucratic hoops of the organization to get mine.

To be sure, even in Paul’s day the church was struggling to provide some kind of organizational framework for a movement that had gone from just over 100 people to tens of thousands of people in just a few years. Nevertheless, when the organism of the Body of Christ that Paul describes in today’s chapter became an organization and then a political, social, and religious institution of the Roman Empire a couple of hundred years later, I believe something was lost.

I’ve observed along my life journey that the church institutions of my childhood are dying. The old mainline denominations have fractured and faded. People are increasingly embittered by the systemic sins of a global religious institution and its leaders who refuse to deal honestly and forthrightly with the issues. When I grew up, a politician was required to be a member of an acceptable religious organization or institution in order to be considered a good candidate. I find it fascinating that a leading politician recently stated that membership in a legacy religious organization is a sign of prejudice and hate speech, disqualifying a person from serving in a government position.

Oh my. The times, they are a changin’.

And, in the quiet this morning I’m thinking that maybe it’s a good thing. History leads me to believe that the Jesus movement is always more effective when it is persecuted and less effective when it is in power. Perhaps we’ll learn how to become an organism once again. You’re welcome to join me. I won’t even ask you to show me a certificate of membership.